Two Shades of Audience

Over the last two weeks, I was invited to give two different talks. One was to take place as part of another school’s Physics Department’s seminar program, and the other as part of an Economics Student Club at my own school. The economics meeting, which was organized by students, was a joint presentation with an Economics professor and was designed to show two perspectives in the need for an energy transition from “green to business” model.

I decided to think about the two talks as a single unit with some symmetry, and design them accordingly. My impression was that the audience at the Physics Department talk would consist of physics students and faculty, while the audience in the Economics Student Club would naturally be comprised mainly of students majoring in economics. I wanted the message to the physicists to be that career opportunities in physics extend well beyond textbook ideas of physics; that they can aspire broadly to be involved in any activity – it is their quantitative outlook that differentiates them from workers with a different background. To do that, I decided to bring my own career choices, present research activities, and life experiences to the forefront. I was also trying to demonstrate to the economics students that they should devote some of their time to the study of the language and fundamentals of the sciences. Given the consistently increasing interactive role humans have in the physical environment (Climate Change is a prime example here—see my June 25 blog), the physical environment will, in turn (in my opinion), take an increasing role in the economic decisions that society must make.

As often happens on such occasions, the reality turned out to be a bit different. The talk for the Physics Department started with the two figures below.

IPCC Equilibrium global mean temperature increase above preindustrialIPCC Ecosystem Risks ForkThese are often used figures that were taken from the last IPCC report (the second figure was already mentioned in my September 24 blog) (I showed much more recent figures, taken from the November 2012 World Bank sponsored report, later in the talk). I regularly use them as a quantitative introduction to my frequent discussion of our much-needed energy transition.

In this particular talk I didn’t go much further in talking about them. I was expecting familiarity with the figures and wanted to get quickly to what I considered the focus of the talk. (I was also working with the probably unconscious expectation that I was not dealing with an audience of deniers) I mentioned the data in the first figure as “simple spectroscopy” – a familiar branch in physics. I did emphasize the uncertainty that is visible in the band of the temperature response to atmospheric consequences of carbon dioxide. The purpose was to differentiate this figure from the second one, which is based on two specific scenarios and represents a projection of the future.

Well – I got a bucket thrown at me (figuratively speaking). The essence of the comments was that this is bad science: much worst science than what physicists are doing for example in figuring out properties of semiconductors— bad science because it cannot be described by a set of differential equations. I was told that in two hours, one of the physicists could come up with his/her own scenario – implying the arbitrary nature of analyzing a future based on projected scenarios. Surely, science with such uncertainty should not form the basis for action that could result in a reduction of our standard of living.

Since I included my Holocaust background (May 14 blog) later in my talk, it was strongly suggested to me to disconnect the two issues, because denying the climate change might lead to denying of the Holocaust.

I ended up in a completely defensive mode that I was not prepared for. In fact, I strongly suspect that what I achieved with the students that were present was the exact opposite of what I had intended.

The dynamics of the second talk were different — calmer. My colleague’s perspective was based on a more general perspective (shared by many economists) that the future, and our ability to predict it, needs to be taken with a large grain of salt. As evidence, he mentioned my data from papers by M. King Hubbert (that I discussed in my October 29 blog post), which showed not only the projected oil supply in the US but also a possible energy transition out of the projected shortage. My colleague did mention the recent advances in technology (Fracking) to drill for natural gas and oil, which are now causing a major shift in our energy usage. An issue that was of great interest to the students was the recent article by Justin Gillis (New York Times, December 5, 2012) titled “To Stop Climate Change, Students Aim at College Portfolios.” I was ambivalent about the tactic, mainly because of its dotted history, but I was admiring the students’ dedication to promote this issue, whose values I share. As far as encouraging studying science, it remains to be seen how effective I was.

Since my objective is to democratize the climate change issue as best I can, it is imperative, at least on my part, to continue to engage with diverse audiences and adapt my response accordingly. This means I will probably meet with varying responses and levels of success in the future, depending on my audience. In any case, it will be a learning experience, hopefully for both my audience and me.

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About climatechangefork

Micha Tomkiewicz, Ph.D., is a professor of physics in the Department of Physics, Brooklyn College, the City University of New York. He is also a professor of physics and chemistry in the School for Graduate Studies of the City University of New York. In addition, he is the founding-director of the Environmental Studies Program at Brooklyn College as well as director of the Electrochemistry Institute at that same institution.
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9 Responses to Two Shades of Audience

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  5. Toby says:

    In “Fear of Physics”, Lawrence Krauss tells the story of a certain University that does a bit of outreach by sending an accountant (sometimes an economist), a biologist and a physicist (sometimes an applied mathematician) out to talk to a group from a local farming community.

    The accountants talks about taxation, how to keep accounts and the wider market. He is warmly applauded. The biologist talks about breeding and hybridization. S/he is warmly applauded.

    The the physicist/ mathematician goes to the board and draws a circle. “Now”, he says, ” Assume this sphere is a cow”. Of course, he loses his audience straightaway.

    Krauss shows how a sphere is actually a good model of a cow for the simple explanation the physicist may have been trying to give. He uses Enrico Fermi’s famous problem “How many piano tuners in Chicago?” as an illustration of the type of practical thinking that physicists and applied mathematicians need to be able to perform to set useful bounds on results before they wheel out heavier mathematics.

    Possibly, Mike, and I would not dare give you “advice”, maybe you could have started with simple examples of Stefan’s Law, building up to Planck’s Law and Lambert’s Law to illustrate the concept of greenhouse gases and their effects. You may have jumped too far ahead for your audience, and they were clearly not as aware of radiation physics as you assumed.

    Knowing you, I am sure you will put your experience to good use in improving your next talk, and the ones after that.

  6. sidd says:

    Susanna Vass says
    December 17, 2012 at 5:00 pm:

    ” The key objection has to do with the fact that the plots and the data behind them, as they were presented, do not lend themselves to being represented as differential equations.”

    Stipulating for the moment that the plots and data do not lend themselves to being represented as DEs (altho i can see argument made that they are the results of a set of DEs, and i can see counterargument that they are validated by paleo, and so on…): Why is this an objection ?

    “… physicists in the group could easily come up with alternative scenarios for the very same set of data and variables that the plots presented are tied with. ”

    Fizicists can and do come up with alternative scenarios all the time. Perhaps they ought to publish something.

    “This second objection relates to the way the plots and the data, as presented, seem to be based on an arbitrary set of criteria, that can be challenged by other set of criteria just as arbitrarily set. Moreover in the absence of a standard for judging which set of criteria are to be accepted, any alternative set of criteria presented would be just as valid.”

    Do tell. Specifically.
    1)Which objectionable criteria are being spoken of here ? I see two graphs which are quite representative of mainstream thought in climate science. What “arbitrary criteria” might they be based on ?
    2)What “alternative criteria” might be set ? And why would they be necessary ?
    3)The standard of judging is, as always, agreement with the data. Where is this absent ?


  7. Susanna Vass says:

    In this post the student reactions from the Physics session hit the speaker at his blindside. Certainly he was not expecting to get vehement objections to the soundness of the science behind the two plots that he presented in the session. The first plot, to be sure, is about the correlated increase in global temperatures as a function of the increase in carbon dioxide emissions into the environment, and on the surface it looks sound. The second plot is the same, except that the time frame is on the x coordinate and the change in temperature is on the y coordinate, with the plot basically representing the projected increase in temperature in the long run. The key objection has to do with the fact that the plots and the data behind them, as they were presented, do not lend themselves to being represented as differential equations. That, and that physicists in the group could easily come up with alternative scenarios for the very same set of data and variables that the plots presented are tied with. This second objection relates to the way the plots and the data, as presented, seem to be based on an arbitrary set of criteria, that can be challenged by other set of criteria just as arbitrarily set. Moreover in the absence of a standard for judging which set of criteria are to be accepted, any alternative set of criteria presented would be just as valid. On the other hand, the presentation with the economics student club was more sedate, and maybe this has something to do with the fact that the talk started by a colleague explaining that there are limitations to the power of the models presented by the speakers to make accurate predictions about the future, the same for the models of economists in general. At any rate the difference between the two talks seem to be that in the former, there was a more intense focus on the rigor of the science, while in the second talk there was more agreement about what constituted good prediction in economics and in climate change (ClimateChangeFork).

  8. sidd says:

    Phycisists are arrogant (and I say this a a sometime phycisist.) Dyson for example. Just because they might be good in their own specialties does not mean they are otherwise qualified.

    When my colleagues sniff at climate science, I have given up arguing. I usually tell them to get back to me after they have had a relevant paper or two published. That usually shuts them up forabit. Sometimes, if particularly provoked by some facile denier argument, I might rederive a result or two from the physics of atmospheres, but usually I tell ’em to go look it up. Life’s too short.

    I must say, that without exception, (in my experience) those that have bothered to go look up the literature have all convinced themselves of the correctness of the major climate science arguments. I have been clearly fortunate in not finding would be Dysons in my circle. Physicists might be arrogant but they can usually do the math, if sufficiently motivated.


  9. Teddy Berman says:

    As an economics and finance major, I felt relieved to fulfill my science cores at Brooklyn College. I learned the information once before in high school and felt burdened once again by the curriculum. I have since discovered the interdisciplinary connection between economics and physics; I plan to take additional Physics courses as elective credits to supplement the qualitative skills reinforced and sharpened during the economics path. Technical skills are essential tools to provide quantitative data to reject “common knowledge” or conventional wisdom. The general public is often uninformed and inclined to resist changes despite empirical evidence. It is for this reason that one must be well rounded and have the skills to verbalize an argument while providing mathematical proofs to support the claim. I expect to refine these skills during more advanced courses in the economics and physics departments.

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